Helen Osborne, OTR/L is the founder of Health Literacy Month in October, an international campaign to raise awareness about the importance of understandable health information.
She is president of Health Literacy Consulting and the producer and host of the Health Literacy Out Loud podcast series.
Q: What is health literacy?
A: The definition of health literacy is evolving. What is getting the most focus now is the alignment between the demands and complexities of health care systems with the abilities and needs of people receiving the message.
Some of the reasons that people struggle to understand health care information include:
- People who are semi-literate or cannot read.
- Literacy levels decline as we age.
- A young adult who is transitioning from pediatrician to other doctors may not be accustomed to talking with different specialists or be familiar with some medical terms.
- Words in health care can have a different meaning than in typical conversation. For example, the word positive generally means things are really good but in medicine it can mean the opposite.
- Someone who has the misfortune to be ill or injured may be in too much pain or overwhelmed to comprehend all of the communication in a health care setting.
- People who speak English as a second language.
Listen to some of my podcasts at Health Literacy Out Loud to learn about other health literacy issues—such as hearing impairment—and the many ways that providers work to improve communications.
Q: How can caregivers—whether they are a family member or a professional caregiver—help to bridge this communication gap?
There are so many ways! For caregivers who are bringing someone to a doctor’s appointment, establish roles ahead of time. Ask the client or patient, “Will it be okay for me to ask questions?” and “Do you want me to take notes?” A caregiver can help a patient or client write down questions before they visit the doctor, keep a log of any issues to share with the doctor, and decide what their role is before, during, and after a doctor visit.
My mother is a great example here. She told me that she was brought up with the belief that it’s rude to ask a person in authority questions. Since I was going to the doctor appointments with her I asked her if it would be okay for me to ask the doctor questions and she said, “Of course, dear!”
The clinician should take the lead in making sure that the client or patient is understanding their instructions. For example, the doctor might say, “We just talked about a high fiber diet. Can you tell me what you will be buying at the grocery store?”
Q: How big of a problem is health literacy?
I first heard the term in 1995 when I was working as an Occupational Therapist and back then the statistic was that more than half of adults struggle to understand written health information. I was an early adopter and started Health Literacy Month in 1999.
(According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, only 12 % of adults have proficient health literacy and 14 % of adults have below basic health literacy. The United States Department of Health and Human Services notes that “low literacy has been linked to poor health outcomes such as higher rates of hospitalization and less frequent use of preventive services…both of these outcomes are associated with higher healthcare costs.”)
Q: What happens during Health Literacy Month?
The theme this year is “Be a Health Literacy Hero.” Health Literacy Heroes are individuals or organizations that take action towards solving health literacy problems in their communities. On my website we have listed some of these heroes, such as a clinic in Kansas City that has created a training program for staffers to be able to better communicate with the uninsured and underinsured population they serve. I’ve provided a checklist on the website to help these advocates stay on track. There are ideas for events and partnering with other organizations in my handbook, which is also available on the website.